On 29 May each year Greece commemorates the fall of Constantinople in 1453. In Athens a surge of grandparents, parents and children holding lit candles headed to Syntagma. Greek flags were flying everywhere; police were on every corner.
The organisers were Golden Dawn, whose headquarters is located not in a dingy backstreet but on the main thoroughfare to Syntagma close to the Ministry of Justice and National Defence of Greece, which take up entire blocks. The meaning is obvious: the police and judiciary are on our side.
Golden Dawn’s presence throughout Greece is revealing. Athens is the focus for their media activities, and their impact has significantly altered the mood in what was a vibrant and cosmopolitan capital prior to the crisis.
Hussein Ali Al Momani is President of the Jordanian Community, and a Greek citizen since 1984. He studied and worked as a surgeon in central Athens. He has noticed a spike in racism towards his 3500 members, a turnaround from five years before. Golden Dawn has exploited Greek antipathy towards Islam. “They think all Muslims are ‘Turks’. You become the instant enemy”, he told New Matilda.
Religious nationalism coupled with austerity has given Golden Dawn fertile ground to enact violence. The most vulnerable are not professionals like Hussein who live in leafy suburbs, but the “illegal migrants”, the lathrometanastes, whose human rights are compromised, with little recourse to police protection or the justice system.
At rallies in the no-nonsense streets of Nikaia and Aghios Panteleimonas, Golden Dawn politicians revel in the language of ridding Greece of the “polluted” races of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Petrou Ralli detention centre nearby houses over 1000 people from Somalia, Mali, Afghanistan and Iran. It's a constant reminder of the influx of lathrometanastes, but Golden Dawn supporters don't discriminate: they also target those who have lived for decades in Greece with valid papers – Egyptians and Pakistanis for the most part, who own mini marts or phone card stalls.
The police, a large contingent of whom vote Golden Dawn, run a protection racket for these immigrants, who would otherwise be left to the mercy of vigilantes. Tellingly, Golden Dawn does not attack Roma encampments in the bleak outer suburb of Gefiria, for fear of reciprocal beatings. Even the Police don’t intervene there.
In Piraeus, Athens' tough port, fanatical fans of the soccer team Olympiakos do double duty as political muscle. Similarly, AEK Athens midfielder George Katides played to the stands with a Nazi salute. This kind of behaviour hasn't been seen since 2007, when Greece played Turkey at the Karaiskaki stadium, and the “Blue Army”, led by now Golden Dawn MP Ilias Panagiotaros, chanted insults.
The offices of Golden Dawn are many, found down the dusty streets and brothels of the petroleum and energy zone of Aspropyrgos. Here, on a drab building off the freeway, a billboard with Nazi insignia advertises regular meetings with the disclaimer: “Not Open to the Public”.
In Piraeus, the office is on the Heroes of the Polytechnic main street, while north in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city with a pronounced multicultural identity, Golden Dawn are on the top floor of a high rise by the port. Thessaloniki has been hit hard by the crisis; tourism and agriculture are keeping it afloat.
James, who arrived in 2008 with a working visa from Ghana, is one of the luckier ones. There are integrated channels for foreign workers here to access travel and health benefits. James said he had not felt the heavy hand of Golden Dawn, rather he felt it from the Athenian police. Profiled, then detained overnight, he was ultimately let go. They thought he was Nigerian, James tells me, stressing his disapproval.
The city of Xanthi saw beatings in May this year in the main plaza, near to Golden Dawn offices. Knives and guns were used. Xanthi’s Police Academy has been converted into a detention centre; there are fewer police graduating since wages were cut by 40 per cent. Migrants generally feel safe in Xanthi as many work the fields picking potatoes, yet few go out at night to visit its ritzy bars. Residents here are not ashamed to admit voting for Golden Dawn. Some do it “just for fun”, to be contrarian, to put the “cat among the pigeons.” This is a feeling consistent throughout Greece from disillusioned voters.
In view of three minarets, Komotini displays a long banner: “To Rid the Land of Filth”. Kostas, a 30 year old party secretary, granted me an interview, but the next day got cold feet. The upper brass of Golden Dawn is wary of all media and demands obedience to the party line. What Kostas admitted in any case was his view that Komotini Muslims were paid 500 euro a year by Turkey to wear headscarves, whilst foreigner agents were agent provocateurs to stir trouble. As for the mosque 50 metres away? “We get along fine with Muslims. Many support us.” he said.
The Evros prefecture in the tight corner of Greece ending at the Turk-Bulgarian border is the gateway of Europe. River border crossings in this region reached a peak between 2009 and 2011. Lathrometanastes would follow the rail all the way from Soufli to the port of Alexandroupoli to register for asylum. They were new arrivals vulnerable to nighttime violence, but there are Muslims of many generations here in Pomak villages.
These established minority groups are not yet targets for Golden Dawn. The protection of Muslim minorities in Thrace has taken place under what appears to be a tacit agreement between Golden Dawn and the army, whose bases are dotted along the border.
The normalisation of Golden Dawn in major cities is the most worrying aspect. Its imagery and rhetoric are accepted as part of the main game. They are not pariahs but a political party with all the rights and privileges conferred by statute. Many Greeks do not take offense at Nazi insignias in the 21st century, an absurdity given Greece’s determined resistance to fascism in the 1940s, for which they paid a heavy price.
I’d like to think a healthy economy and Greeks would be laissez-faire about immigrants just as they are about litter, smoking in your face, or parking cars anywhere they please. But in 2013 Greece is unraveling.
Discontent is coalescing into an oppositional force that uses racial and ethnic supremacy as a binding gel. The entire nation is bashed from pillar to post by austerity measures and has seen its suicide rates steadily increase. Under these circumstances a vote for Golden Dawn is seen as resisting the status quo.